︎︎︎ HOME
︎︎︎ PREVIOUS PAGE


The Voedselbos Speaks: an afternoon with Wouter van Eck

Enzyme Magazine #1
2020





- How do your neighbours see your food forest, Wouter?
- To summarise, I think they see us as friendly aliens. But it is an equal relationship, because we find their farming methods very strange.



The food forest that is cultivated by Wouter van Eck and Pieter Jansen in Groesbeek, Netherlands, looks like an island, packed with multiple species of plants, bushes and trees, surrounded by a flat ocean of monoculture. If you are driving by, you may feel you have encountered a weird loose page in an apparently coherent book, as if that specific patch had been written in a foreign language, or even in a whole other alphabet. The Dutch landscape is that book and all of a sudden you realise, when confronted with difference, that all the pages you were reading till now told the exact same story, over and over again. But once you enter this alien page and read all the complex stories it tells you, learn about the biodiversity it supports, its soil regeneration properties and the abundance of food it produces, you realise that the former pages you were reading are the ones which should be under suspicion. They are the ones which are very strange and hardly make any sense.

Modern agriculture, if translated into letters, would look something like this:

A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A

One singled-out element, repeated to infinity. Now try to read the above paragraph aloud. The resulting lack of movement of the mouth attempting to pronounce this continuous one-letter sequence causes discomfort. By line 3, I am out of breath, as there are no commas, periods or breaks in the mono field. A limited amount of muscles are engaged in producing that prolonged single sound as I feel my mouth dry from remaining open. The lack of sense in doing so also kicks in by line 4, when after a short break to catch air I re-engage with this desert of meaning. By line 7 I already understood this paragraph is not feeding me back. I am putting a lot of energy and effort in trying to perform it, but I get no reward, no communication, no excitement, no learning. Just like a monoculture, it tells me no stories in return. Or does it?

As a matter of fact, it does. If we are to look into the history of single species cultivation we will learn that it dates back to thousands of years. What today has been naturalised as the best way to grow food does have a very specific history. The apparently simple process of isolating plants to optimise productivity is not a human thing, though, at least not in its beginning. It is a method that was developed by specific societies at a specific time and for specific reasons. According to Anna Tsing, it was in the Near East about 10.000 years ago that those societies gradually began to change the focus from multispecies landscapes to one or two particular crops, especially wheat and barley [1]. That history intricately connects the rise of state, the formation of elites and social hierarchies. In the shift from foraging to intensive cereal agriculture, biological transformation of people and plants occurred, resulting in more sedentary lives and stable farming methods. Family-based households also became part and supported this system, which confined women and grains to maximise fertility. The new high-carbohydrate diet allowed for women to have more children, creating larger families who were immediately employed in an agricultural system that, due to its antagonistic approach to nature, requires intensive labour [2].

This complicated history is behind every "simple isolation of one species", which are usually "annual plants that by necessity require the eradication of an ecosystem in order for their seeds to be planted" [3]; in other words, modern agriculture. More recently, in the past 500 years of colonialism, this kind of land use that was once specific to certain parts of the planet, managed to spread globally. In Anna Tsing's words:

"Plantations were the engine of European expansion. Plantations produced the wealth— and the modus operandi—that allowed Europeans to take over the world. We usually hear about superior technologies and resources; but it was the plantation system that made navies, science, and eventually industrialisation possible. Plantations are ordered cropping systems worked by non-owners and arranged for expansion. Plantations deepen domestication, re-intensifying plant dependencies and forcing fertility. Borrowing from state-endorsed cereal agriculture, they invest everything in the superabundance of a single crop. But one ingredient is missing: They remove the love. Instead of the romance connecting people, plants, and places, European planters introduced cultivation through coercion. The plants were exotics; the labour was forced through slavery, indenture, and conquest. Only through extreme order and control could anything flourish in this way; but with hierarchy and managed antagonism in place, enormous profits (and complementary poverties) could be produced. Because plantations have shaped how contemporary agribusiness is organised, we tend to think of such arrangements as the only way to grow crops. But this arrangement had to be naturalised until we learned to take the alienation of people from their crops for granted" [4].







Strangely enough, Wouter van Eck was also part of that story. Having studied Political Science and Development Studies in the Netherlands, he used to monitor Dutch development projects looking into ways of improving food production in Africa, ironically using European conventional methods of agriculture. In his trip to Kenya, he accidentally came in contact with local food forest systems, when he visited an area that produced abundant food in organised layers that mimic the forest. The managed system produced avocados, mangos, coffee, papayas, bananas and other tropical fruit in a rather unique method they did not call agriculture. And even more surprisingly, that system was also regenerating the soil and the environment.

In a counter-colonial move, Wouter went back to the Netherlands with a changed perspective, fertilised by what he had experienced. But it was only years later that, together with Pieter, they found the means to start their own food forest, translating the warm climate systems into the specificities of their home country. Their plan was to use the species available in the Dutch surroundings and think in terms of layers, diversity and soil life, introducing edible species that can cope with the local weather conditions. Their focus on the local specificities also led them into translating the expression "food forest". The pioneers of agroforestry in the Netherlands then created the expression "voedselbos", which was inexistent in Dutch and soon became a movement in the country. Today, many voedselbos can be found around the Netherlands, most of them having been originated from the people who have attended Wouter's courses and lectures [5]. The seeds are being spread.

According to UK agroforestry pioneer Martin Crawford, food forests have been common in warmer parts of the planet for at least 10.000 years, but it was only recently, in the last 40 years, that these systems started being used in colder climates. Wouter and Pieter's Ketelbroek Food Forest only started in 2009. With his usual sense of humour, Wouter says that only three years after they had begun their food forest, they received a phone call saying they were the "oldest food forest in the Netherlands". Prone to a good laugh, he also likes to make jokes about how lazy he is. If a farmer is not working on antagonising natural processes, the intensive work is substituted by a collaborative atmosphere with other species in which you are not working against, but working with nature. Laziness, in his words, means surfing the wave of ecological succession and not engaging in the battle called monoculture. The joyful ride of collaborative work, in which a "soft guidance" of species cultivation is practiced, shows in the smile and good sense of humour of someone who wisely understood that a life based on multispecies entanglements can be far more interesting and fertile than the usual dictating to the land what it should produce.

Indigenous people from Brazil were often considered lazy by the colonisers. Working, in the antagonist sense of conquering nature and fighting against biodiversity, was never part of the indigenous tribes repertory. If you are not fighting nature, then you must be lazy. The effortless work, in the European perspective, was immediately noticed by the Portuguese colonisers when they saw these people feeding from the abundance of the forest. But they also were intrigued by bodies who looked much healthier, and perhaps happier, than those who were domesticating animal and plant species to produce food. In the words of Pero Vaz de Caminha, in 1500, this is how he described his first contact with the indigenous tribes of Brazil on his letter to the king of Portugal:

"They do not plough or breed cattle. There are no oxen here, nor goats, sheep, fowls, nor any other animal accustomed to live with man. They eat only inhame [yams], which are plentiful here, and those seeds and fruits that the earth and the trees give of themselves. Nevertheless, they are of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and legumes that we eat". [6]

After all, what we are talking about are two very different worldviews, which also create very different worlds. For Wouter, common sense says "either you are a farmer, or you are a nature conservationist. You are not allowed to do the two at the same time". In the frame of mind we were taught to think, these worlds collide, and that is when bridging attitudes such as the one happening in Ketelbroek Food Forest start making sense, as the farmers-conservationists are thriving in bringing nature back, combining it with food production, which, by the way, is not just for humans. Their sweet revenge on conventional agriculture includes the welcoming of birds, insects, fungi and many "volunteer species" that have decided to live in the lazy lifestyle of the food forest. All are welcome, as each has a role to play in thickening the plot. And by then we already start understanding why Wouter rarely uses the pronoun "I". Most of the time, he is using "we" to refer to the farm, and by the end of the conversation, the "we" that first referred to him and his partner Pieter, gradually seems to expand to become a multispecies pronoun. As we listened to him, we also understood his voice was built collectively and that we were actually listening to a complex [7] environment that speaks, or sings, through him.

What a beautiful soundscape!


[1] Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companions Species, Anna Tsing
[2] Ecological succession is modern agriculture's worst enemy. It is nature's constant effort to create diverse environments. Wherever there is the isolation of one species, it will be "attacked" by insects, weeds, fungi and animals in order to make it into a more complex environment. Singling out species thus require a constant battle against biodiversity. The vocabulary of war is adopted by conventional farmers, who have to fight 24/7 against nature's propensity to create multispecies landscapes. Pesticides and heavy machinery are human's weapons in a fight that cannot possibly be won.
[3] Restoration Agriculture, Mark Shepard, p.27.
[4] Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companions Species, Anna Tsing
[5] Wouter van Eck has lectured widely on the subject, both in privately organised courses, as well as in universities.
[6] Letter to the King of Portugal, 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha.
[7] According to Edgar Morin, complex is "that which has been woven together". See On Complexity, Hampton Press, 2008.


Cargo Collective
Frogtown, Los Angeles
o